In my story last week cheekily apportioning blame for the Caps’ slump, my most pointed words were for Washington’s goalies. During five-on-five during the slump, Braden Holtby has saved 86.5 percent of shots and Pheonix Copley has saved 85.9 percent. These are two very bad performances. It’s neither difficult nor incorrect to identify them as the root cause the seven-game losing streak.
But the losing streak has also sparked a spirited conversation about team defense, which I understand to be the revolutionary concept that an entire team is supposed to play good defense. The implication is that head coach Todd Reirden is ultimately responsible for the recent underlying patterns beneath all the losing. This is wrong, but maybe not for the reasons you would think.
First, in defense of Braden Holtby, since no one else seems to be doing that lately, a few points. Holtby’s overall save percentage during five-on-five is just fine, despite having cratered since mid-January. The histogram below shows every NHL goalie with at least ten hours clocked. The low save percentages are at left, and the good ones are at right. Holtby’s in the middle.
Holtby has a 91.8-percent save percentage, below his natural home of 93 percent, but not by any means bad.
And yet sometimes I hear that Braden Holtby isn’t making enough saves. That cannot be right though, because Holtby is actually making more saves than ever.
Per Natural Stat Trick, Holtby is averaging around 30 saves per hour, more than any recent season. But this is a trick. Holtby doesn’t control the number of shots he sees; he can only save as many of the shots he faces as possible. How many shots he faces and where those shots are taken from are determined by the teammates in front of him — in the nebulous domain of team defense, and that’s the matter here.
Considering the quality of shots a goalie faces, we can calculate his expected save percentage. Goalies do not meaningfully control their expected save percentage, the skaters do, but we can use expected save percentage to understand how tough a goalie’s job is, then we can compare those expectations to reality. Holtby’s expected and actual save percentages, via Corsica, are below.
After three seasons of saving (in dark blue) far more than expected (in light blue), Holtby’s expected and actual save percentages have both plummeted. That’s concerning, though it is important to note that Holtby is still saving more goals than expected in 2018-19 despite the problems in front of him.
In the table below, via Natural Stat Trick, we can see those problems magnify recently, as Holtby faces more high-danger shots (in red) than he ever has before.
And Natural Stat Trick offers some other useful context. Using play-by-play data, we can deduce if a shot is a rebound or on-the-rush based on the events that immediately proceeded it. This isn’t a perfect calculation based on the limitations of the data, but it is helpful in telling a story. In this case, the story is scary.
Rush attempts (in blue), which can indicate problems in the neutral zone, have increased 30 percent in the last two seasons. Rebound attempts (in red), which can indicate problems in the defensive zone, have increased 60 percent. (Holtby may bear some responsibility for the latter.) This is a team progressively losing control of the puck when outside the offensive zone.
To get a better understanding of how the teammates in front of Holtby are failing him, below are heatmaps from Hockey Viz for each of the last five seasons. These images show where on the ice opponent shots are coming from — with blue indicating fewer shots than league average and red indicating more. You will notice a change from blue to red right in front of the net.
The team moved from an impressive blue blob right in front of the net back in 2014-15, indicating a stout defense, to a large red blob in 2018-19, indicating a feeding frenzy in the slot. These images show the goalie’s job getting increasingly harder.
It’s abundantly clear that Caps’ goalies, especially Holtby, are suffering because of systemic and worsening problems with the team defense, which brings us to the man accountable for the degradation, head coach Todd Reirden. Reirden has presided over the first seven-game losing streak in half a decade, just months after taking over for his championship-winning predecessor. And if you think that’s the story, then you have not been paying attention. Look at those graphs again.
Every worsening of the Capitals defense began, not this season, but two seasons ago, under Barry Trotz, at the start of 2017-18. It was then that opponent attempt rates went up 16 percent, scoring chances and high-danger chances went up 23 percent, and expected goals went up 19 percent. The changes since last season have actually been pretty minor, even if anecdotal breakdowns are compelling. The real damage happened 18 months ago, but the Stanley Cup halo effect has obscured all the problems that predated the Reirden takeover.
The progression of these problems is apparent in the next graphic, which combines the Hockeyviz defensive heatmaps for each season with the team’s expected-goal rates from Evolving Hockey. The red line is the Caps’ offense; the blue line is their opponents’ offense. The graph begins at left with 2014-15, but I want you to look at 2017-18.
Click the image to embiggen
The blue line, opponent expected goals per hour, spikes upwards as the 2017-18 season begins and the defense crumbles. I’ve also annotated the 2018 trade deadline, which was an important demarcation point, when Michal Kempny effectively replaced Madison Bowey in the lineup. That change improved the defense, which you can see in the blue line going down thereafter. But now that blue line is almost where it was before last year’s deadline swaps. (Work those phones, GMBM.)
At the top of this article I said that Caps’ goalies are responsible for the slump. That’s still correct. Saving 85 percent of shots will lose you a lot of games. But in a strange way, Holtby and Copley have done us a favor, revealing the endemic failures in team defense that have been hurting this team since Justin Williams, Marcus Johansson, Daniel Winnik, and Nate Schmidt left in the summer of 2017.
Yes, sorry, all this time you’ve been reading a Nate Schmidt story. I have tricked you again.
Headline photo: Elizabeth Kong
Russian Machine Never Breaks is not associated with the Washington Capitals; Monumental Sports, the NHL, or its properties. Not even a little bit.
All original content on russianmachineneverbreaks.com is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)– unless otherwise stated or superseded by another license. You are free to share, copy, and remix this content so long as it is attributed, done for noncommercial purposes, and done so under a license similar to this one.